We continue our look at Group of 5 conference prospects and come into the Conference USA (C-USA). The C-USA may not have many household names or primetime games like other conferences, but they do have teams that can stack up to the rest of the nation. Last season, North Texas demolished Arkansas and Charlotte, played tough vs. Tennessee and UAB won their first conference championship since reinstating their team in 2017. Additionally, they are all led by players that could be hearing their names called in Vegas next year at the 2020 NFL Draft.

Mason Fine, QB, North Texas

Just like D’Eriq King of Houston, the small QBs are in style, especially in the Group of 5 conferences. At 5’11, 190, Fine may not be as mobile King, but he extends plays well and can make throws to each part of the field. He has already broken plenty of records for North Texas, and he will go down as one of the most prolific QBs in college football history.

Fine led the C-USA in passing yards, total offensive yards, and touchdowns; Fine also had five 300+ yard passing games. Aside from the height, Fine is everything you want in a quarterback. He’s smart, reliable, a great leader, poised and is one of the toughest competitors you will see throw a pigskin. He shows all of his traits in 2017 vs. UTSA, where he led a 98-yard game-winning drive in Denton, Texas.

Evaluating isn’t all about stats and film; that’s why teams interview prospects during the pre-draft process. Fine is going to kill them. He has that “it factor,” that dawg in him, that intangible trait that jumps off of his film and says he’s going to do anything he sets his mind to. Seth Littrell (head coach of North Texas) was the only Division I coach that took a chance on Fine, and they are cooking up something special down in Denton with The Mean Green.

Alex Highsmith, EDGE, Charlotte

Remember that It factor I just referenced? Alex Highsmith has that too. Highsmith has a story that could be the next great football movie. Started as a walk on off-ball linebacker at UNC Charlotte; worked his butt off to get off of the scout team and onto the field and hasn’t looked back. At 6’3, 242, this is a strong man, and all he does is work.

Highsmith has strong hands and uses them very well in the run game. That strength translates to the passing game well and as he executes a powerful bull rush that has offensive tackles complaining about their cleats when they fall. Highsmith and the Charlotte defense may not face a lot of top end competition, but they completely stoned Tennessee’s offense when they met them last season. The 49ers held the Vols to 192 total yards and 20 yards rushing. And Highsmith had a lot to do with that.

Highsmith is going to be a good run defender at the next level; you can tell that by his 17.5 tackles for loss which counted for 5th in the C-USA and also broke Larry Ogunjobi‘s old school record. But for him to stay on a roster, he will need to add some variety to his pass rush. The good thing is that Fine can also contribute on special teams while he develops on defense. Charlotte running a 4-2-5 defense this season should help Highsmith develop his outside rush since he was often in a three-technique rushing to contain last season. With Highsmith’s work ethic and drive, theirs no telling where his talent can take him.

 Rico Bussey Jr., WR, North Texas

Moreover, here’s one of Mason Fine’s favorite targets. Bussey is fast with strong hands and has a knack for the endzone. Fine and Bussey’s connection helped Bussey become top 5 in the C-USA in receptions per game and receiving yards per game.

Bussey is a YAC receiver, and North Texas takes full advantage of that. They send him on crossing routes often and let him make magic with the ball in his hands. They also motion him in the backfield and let him get the ball on both jet sweeps and deep balls. Bussey is sometimes prone to concentration drops, so he will have to make sure those don’t happen this season.

North Texas has had a good core of receivers in the Seth Littrell era, and Bussey will look to lead their receivers again this season.

Adrian Hardy, WR, Louisiana Tech

Let’s start this one off with this clip.

Can you tell he was signed to Oklahoma before granted his release before the season? Hardy is a go-getter. He makes the highlight catch, the catches in double coverage, and I’m pretty sure he can catch grains of rice individually.

A former quarterback in high school, Hardy has that athleticism on full display throughout his routes. He is explosive off the line and in his breaks and excels at the catch point. His best game last season came against LSU where he gave Kristian Fulton, Greedy Williams and the Tigers fits. A stat line of 10 catches, 180 yards, and 2 TDs against a very talented SEC secondary is enough to get NFL  draft personnel to take notice.

Amik Robertson, CB, Louisiana Tech

And on the other side of the ball going against Hardy every day is one of the top corners in the nation. Robertson is smooth in his technique and hip flips and has the feet of a ballerina, which allows him to match any receiver.

Robertson also played very well vs. LSU, covering their receivers in man to man and Cover 3. Robertson is a complete athlete at 5’9, 180 and teams will most likely want to put him in the slot because of his small stature. But Robertson can play outside as well, and some organizations may even want to see him at safety because of his physical play and his coverage abilities. And if all else fails, Robertson could be a kick and punt returner.

Expect to see Robertson in Day 2 of the NFL Draft next year.

Harrison Bryant, TE, Florida Atlantic

Time for an appearance from the Owls. Harrison Bryant is an athletic, physical tight end that can play in the backfield, on the line, and in the slot. The Owls use him in each of these facets, slipping him out of the backfield and across the middle of the field. And the former offensive lineman can flat out block.

Bryant’s technique is pass blocking is so good he looks better than some of the tackles on his team. You can tell Bryant loves his craft by his technique and tireless effort that he gives on the field. The first team All-C-USA member also moves well in space and has the soft hands to reel in throws in Lane Kiffin’s offense. Teams in the draft are going to love Bryant for his blocking alone, and his pass-catching prowess is only going to add to his powerful arsenal.

Other players to watch

Charlotte: RB Benny LeMay and S Ben DeLuca

FIU: LB Sage Lewis

Louisiana Tech: DL Willie Baker

Marshall: DL Channing Hames

Middle Tennessee St.: WR Ty Lee and S Reed Blankenship

Southern Miss: WR Quez Watkins (would’ve been on this list but status with the team is uncertain.)

UAB: CB Brontae Harris